A Return to My Old Stomping Grounds

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

As I find myself journeying along the open road, I find myself thinking back to my younger days and my early inspirations. As a young traveler, I went to school in the small central California towns of Shingle Springs and El Dorado, and later Placerville. Placerville, California provided an easy setting for my young imagination to take me back in time to the early days of the gold rush in 1849. Back in my younger years, the late 1960s, time and population had not yet found its way to the area. Nowadays, the population has grown and much of that mystical setting I admired in my early years has now faded into the past.

In those years, I had not yet learned of the Lincoln Highway, but as the fates would have it, my family resided up the hill from the original Highway. Often my friends and I would journey down the road to the local shops and visit the ice cream parlor for a cool treat. In front of this haunt was an original Lincoln Highway marker, where we would hang our coats, not knowing the history it represented. Placerville had another marker that had been encased into one of the shops along the road. These days the shop from my past is long gone, having been replaced by a place to find a quick bite to eat.

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As you are aware, I have always been drawn to the tales of local history. This was no different in those young years, when my journeys led me to pick up a book with photos showing how the places I enjoyed everyday looked in the time of my imaginings. While we cannot journey back to those days, the pictures and stories shared allow a glimpse of that bygone time when gold was just being found in the hills and valleys of California.

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One of my favorite towns in this area is Coloma, California, which you will find along Highway 49. History runs deep in this small town, as it is the location where gold was first discovered in California at Sutter’s Mill. As a young traveler, I enjoyed the field trips and outings to the old area, running wild amidst the historical buildings and museums.

One such building was Bell’s Store. Robert Bell, the store owner, established this beautiful brick building, displaying the wares of the day out in front. Bell’s Store was one of the first buildings put up after the Fire of 1856 which had destroyed much of the structures in this small town. A few years I painted a likeness of Bell’s Store, using acrylics on redwood, to showcase the lasting beauty of my favorite building in the area.

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Even though the years have passed and my journeys have led me far away, I will always remember the settings of Placerville and beyond that inspired my young mind. As a miner ever seeks gold in the next big strike, I ever seek out adventure on the next road.

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From the Open Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

Cruising the Mother Road and Beyond

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

As I ventured along the Mother Road herself, Route 66, in Arizona, I found myself thinking of how this particular stretch is a tourist’s delight. Along the Route, you will find a bit of everything, from unique curio shops to many historical sites. Each town along the way gives Route 66 its own twist, which provides something for every person to enjoy. The stops draw the traveler in, inviting them to take a rest, enjoy a different part of the road’s history, and lessen the weight of their wallet along the way. While I try to avoid that last one, I thoroughly enjoy experiencing these different twists and appreciate how each town creates the atmosphere that keeps tourists coming back and experiencing the history of Route 66.

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After exploring the many unique sights along Route 66, my destination came in sight. My journey along the Mother Road lead me to Jerome, Arizona, which can be found in the mountains to the southwest of Flagstaff. Like the Route itself, Jerome is filled with many unique shops and experiences, but truly is for those brave tourists who wish to experience a little of the days gone by. Jerome provides an Old West adventure in the form of a living ghost town, providing visitors with a glimpse into the past.

While in Jerome, if you venture past the fire station and journey down a long, skinny road, you will find yourself in the area previously known as Haynes, Arizona. About 30 years ago, a fellow Iowan by the name Don Robertson moved down to the area and created the historical complex known as the Gold King Mine and Ghost Town. I often wanted to venture out on this journey in years prior and meet Mr. Robertson, but I sadly was not able make the trip out until this past year. Although Mr. Robertson has journeyed on down the long road, his collection and work lives on, providing a glimpse into the past for folks like myself to enjoy for the years to come.

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Whenever you find the need to get your kicks on Route 66, be sure to journey on down the Mother Road and bring along a friend, like my buddy in the drawing below, to enjoy the different twists along the way. Once you find yourself near Flagstaff, take a quick turn down to Jerome and to Mr. Robertson’s place and explore the many items he collected along his own journey. I guarantee that no matter where you find yourself as you journey along the great Route 66, the history of the road and the area will rise to meet you.

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From the Open Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

 

Road Trip to the Past

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

As you are well-aware, most of my works come from my trips along the open road or from my own history. However, another part of my journeys include reenacting history itself, in particular that war that set brother against brother, the Civil War.

Early in the fall each year, our group of Civil War reenactors, the Army of the Southwest, engage in a reenactment in Corydon, Iowa. This small town is located in Southeast Iowa on Highway 2. Now most towns in this area of my great state are farm-based communities, with a low population in the town itself. This reenactment takes places in the picturesque setting of the local park, with beautiful trees, a rolling landscape, and a quaint lake.

As a reenactor, I often vary between acting as a soldier for North or the South during our battles. When we are back camp-side, I take on a different role as a war correspondent. However, many of my fellow reenactors maintain their role as a solider while relaxing by the fires, which often inspires my art. I quickly sketched out the work below during this most recent event.

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As the weather this year during our reenactment was not as inviting as years before, I decided to journey down the road about six miles to one of those other small towns, Allerton, Iowa. Now I happened across Allerton during a class reunion of sorts, which seemed to include former students from all the past graduating years. This reunion has a parade, a luncheon at the fire station, and activities to celebrate across the businesses in the community. I was fortunate enough to find a room at the Inn of the Six-Toed Cat, the local, and only, bed and breakfast in town. Now while I could regale you with the story behind this unique name, it is better coming from the cat’s mouth itself: Story of the InnSix-Toed Cat

As I sat on the porch, enjoying the scenes of this old, unique inn, I took in the stormy weather around me. This weather did not seem to dampen the celebrations around the town, as I heard the sounds of folks coming together to share their heritage. Most years, as a part of the reunion celebrations, the Inn hosts a dinner with General Ulysses S. Grant. However, General Grant was unavailable this year, so in order to substitute for the man himself, I created the work below. 20171217_154031

If you ever find yourself looking to embrace some local culture in Southeast Iowa, take a rest in Allerton and perhaps General Grant or a six-toed cat may stop by to make your visit as memorable as my own.

From the Open Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

Giving Thanks from the Open Road

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

The road has kept me busy over the last few months, as it so often does. As it is the time of year where we give thanks and reflect on all that we see as we journey along, I wanted to say thank you to all who have passed by and shared in my tales. I hope that these stories, and the ones yet to come, have given you some entertainment and some further knowledge into the history we are surrounded by on our travels.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, or Turkey Day, as I call it. Now while I enjoy a turkey leg or two like many of you, I could not help but think of one of my recent travels in my home state of Iowa.

Cruising through Central Iowa, heading north on the Jefferson Highway, that lovely stretch of road that runs from Winnipeg, Canada, to New Orleans, one cannot help but enjoy the pungent aroma of the many turkey confinements along the way. In recent years, this aroma has been enhanced and spread out along the rolling plains with the help of the many wind turbines that have sprouted up, exposing even more travelers to this particular scent. Now I cannot help but wonder if the turkeys ruffle their feathers and stir up that smell a bit more at this time of year. Maybe if we could these poor birds a reprieve, rather than sentencing them to be served tableside across the country, perhaps they would give us thanks and provide a more welcoming scent.

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The Colonel driving along in his chicken-powered “Roast”er

My thought is to give the Colonel a bit more business and rather than spend hours cooking over a hot stove, we should enjoy some of his finger-licking good chicken. Whatever your preference may be, original, extra crispy, or one of those new flavors, let us enjoy one of the Colonel’s recipes. So this holiday season, let us give thanks for what we as blue-blooded Americans truly can appreciate and enjoy – some delicious, fried chicken.

So happy holidays to all my fellow travelers. I hope the road will be kind in the weeks to come as we journey on to the new year.

From the Open Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

George Preston – A True Lincoln Highway Icon

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

Long before the conception of the National Lincoln Highway Association, as we spoke of in my last post, a character from Eastern Iowa was telling the story of the Lincoln Highway.  His name was George Preston.

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George Preston was a self-promoter of that great road, the Lincoln Highway, and his own gas station, which is located along the Highway in Belle Plaine, Iowa. I personally met this iconic character back for the first time in 1990, around the same time he made his debut on the Johnny Carson Show. George was a collector who was proud of his finds and showed every individual each unique piece he had found over the years.

The last time I sat with Mr. Preston to hear his tales of the road was in the Spring of 1992.  His tales wound far and wide, bringing those who would listen deep into the story and making it hard for anyone, including myself, to want to leave. On this last occasion, George was promoting one of those cassette tapes of his very own work.  He asked me to buy one, and as I listened, I learned he had recorded himself rapping along to Burma Shave slogans. These slogans were put along the road to match the rhythms you would feel as you travelled along. As you drove, you would see such signs as: “When you grow old/And thin/Your head grows bald/But not your chin/BURMA SHAVE.” Now just imagine this fellow friend of the road rapping out to such a tune.

For a mere five dollars, I was able to own this lyrical treasure. Back then, a cassette tape was usually not quite as much, so I told George that five dollars was a bit high, but he assured me that the money was going to the restoration of his gas station.

This past year, I decided to create a George Preston likeness, and using the cassette tape I had purchased those many years ago, I created an interactive musical menagerie where anyone who visited the national Lincoln Highway conference could experience his talent.

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I unveiled this mechanical wonder to the public at the conference for all to experience In present day, it stands proudly in our humble museum in Grand Junction, Iowa, for all who visit to push the button and enjoy.

If you ever find yourselves traveling through Grand Junction, stop and get a few words of advice from my fellow friend of the road, Mr. George Preston.  It is a musical moment none should miss.

From the Open Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

Another One in the Books

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

Just a few weeks ago, the Iowa Lincoln Highway Association, for which, as you all know, I am the Artist-in-Residence, hosted another successful national conference in Denison, Iowa.  This is the third time we have had the honor of hosting this conference here in the state I call home.

The first national conference we hosted was in 1994 in Ames, Iowa. The organization was a young thing, with this being the second ever national Lincoln Highway Association conference.  Despite our early fears, the conference was a roaring success and set the stage for the many national conferences to come.

The conferences rotate through the 13 states of the Highway every year. As the years went by, we in Iowa had our second chance to hold the conference ten years later in 2004. This conference, lovingly called “Out of the Mud,” was hosted in Cedar Rapids, at Coe College.   We not only pulled “out of the mud,” we roared out and held yet another successful event.

This now brings our journey up to today. In the late days of June, we had our third national conference. This time around, we chose to host the conference on the western side of the state, in the town of Denison in Crawford County. Now this county holds a special place in my own story, as if you recall from one of my earlier tales, my grandpa and many more came from Crawford County.

During the conference, we visited many local haunts along the road, including a theater named after a little known lady, Ms. Donna Reed.  Here we enjoyed some old shows and spent a little time out of the heat.  As I stepped back out into the light, I was spotted by Mr. Gordon Wolf of the Denison Review. As I recounted some of my journeys along the open road, Mr. Wolf transcribed them for you to read below:

“Denison has been host to a number of Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) members this week who are in town for the national conference. For some of the visitors, the stay in Denison is akin to a homecoming. Their roots are planted in the historic coast-to-coast highway and are also tapped into the community…LHJ 1

…John Fitzsimmons is a great storyteller. A founding LHA member when he was 32, John is from Boone, via Eureka, California. He grew up in Placerville, California, which is also on the Lincoln Highway.

As the artist in residence for the LHA, he is known as “Lincoln Highway Johnny.” He creates works of art about the Lincoln Highway, all for viewing, not for sale. A display of his work was at the Boulders Conference Center for this week’s national conference.

 

Another strong connection with the route is that John’s grandfather, Pat Fitzsimmons, helped build the Lincoln Highway.

“Back in 1992, everyone was excited about starting the Lincoln Highway Association,” he said. “But we had to find out where it was.”

The location of parts of the original route, dedicated on October 31, 1913, by the original Lincoln Highway Association, was unknown.

One of John’s jobs was to help paint the red, white and blue Lincoln Highway logo on telephone poles along the route. “I painted over 186 of them,” he said.

John can be distinguished from his fellow LHA members by the overalls and hat he wears, and the Lincoln Highway logos he painted on the toes of his shoes. He told how that came about.

 

He and a partner were painting the highway logo on telephone poles in Boone County in 1992. He was standing 10 feet up on a ladder, and a swirling wind was blowing the paint in circles. “I looked and had more paint on myself than on the pole,” he said.

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“Then I looked down and saw there wasn’t a drop of paint on my shoes. So I said I would train the paint to make an “L” on my shoes.”

 

Like others, John has a connection not only with the Lincoln Highway but with Denison and Crawford County. He said his father, Glenn Fitzsimmons, and mother, Rosemary (Segebart), grew up in Vail and knew the Mullenger family – Reed’s family.

He said his aunt Beulah Davis worked for Heidi Mullenger, Reed’s sister, and his mother knew Reed’s brother.

 

His mother and father moved to California in 1953. His father died three years ago at age 89. His mother is 82 and lives in Eureka.

This week, John called his mother and said, “Guess where I am. At Cronk’s.”

In her youth, his mother often stopped at Cronk’s after roller skating outings. “She said they had the best burgers,” said John. In addition, his mother’s cousin worked at Cronk’s.

For John the association is not only about preserving the history of the historic route but is also about the people. “I like attending the conference because I see people I don’t get to see all the time” said John.

But he can’t attend every national conference. He last attended one in 2013 in Kearney, Nebraska. He wanted to but was unable to attend last year’s conference in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; he is a civil war reenactor.

“Every year we are losing members and are losing fine workers,” John said. “I want to see them.

 

“Everybody loves the road and the history,” he added.

 

“There’s something about the Lincoln Highway, but it’s not just about the concrete. It’s about what’s along the highway – the buildings and the heritage.”

To read more of about the conference as told by Mr. Gordon Wolf, head on over to Denison Lincoln Highway Conference.

As I told Mr. Wolf, the best part of these conferences is seeing my long time fellow travelers over the years. However, as with most things in this life, the best is followed by the worst, as we miss those who have journeyed along the path we all eventually must follow.

If you find yourself heading east along the road next year, stop by New Jersey, where the 2018 national conference will be hosted.

From the Open Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

 

He is known as… the Redbird Express

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

As you travel along the highway, you will meet characters who live alternative lifestyles from your own. A few years back, I had the great privilege of meeting a fellow traveler.  He does not follow my concrete path, but instead follows the road of rails. While he has a given name, Carl, he goes by his hobo name of the Redbird Express.

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The Redbird Express hails from Pennsylvania. Now Pennsylvania happens to be one of the thirteen states the Lincoln Highway travels through, so when I got to know the Redbird Express, he had found himself at a Lincoln Highway meeting in Jefferson, IA. The Redbird Express became intrigued by the Lincoln Highway Association and decided to become a member of our society. As a guest speaker at our meeting, Carl spoke of being crowned King of the Hobos at the Hobo Celebration in Brett, IA and spoke of his many adventures along the rails across the good ol’ USA.

The Redbird Express has also visited Boomtown, the coal mining hamlet I call home.  Upon his visit to my hamlet, I created this drawing of him, where he sits in a hobo camp along the tracks he traveled in the Midwest.

Although I have not seen the Redbird Express for some time, I heard the years have taken their toll and now, due to his health, he stays closer to his home.  I wish the Redbird Express all the best and that the rails come to meet him, just as the road comes to meet me.

From the Open Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

Torque Fest 2017

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

The open road has been a bumpy one of late, which delayed some of my travels.  But I have returned and would like to talk about an “Alternative Style” car show I visited over the last weekend.

Near the Mississippi River in the Eastern Iowa town of Dubuque, Torque Fest happens every year.  I have been attending this event every year since its inception, where it started in Farley, IA and moved around until it landed finally in Dubuque.  Torque Fest is a celebration of the early creation of the American Hot Rod and all the culture that comes with it. While traversing the grounds, Bettys are plenty with rock-a-billy setting the soundtrack to the day.  The word of event is No-Billet, meaning no fancy bells and whistles.

john wells touqe festMost of the proceeds of the event go to a medical fund called Helping Hannah, who is the daughter of the founder, Mr. John Wells.  Mr. Wells, the featured man in my drawing today, founded this fest.  When I first met him, he was a purveyor of classic car films, using those funds to help his daughter.  Now he has graduated to hosting Torque Fest once a year and Iron Invasion, a car show much the same as this event, in Woolstock, IL.

This show has a flavor for all tastes, with old time races ranging from automobiles to motorcycles to chain races, to a swap meet where you can find treasures from a bygone era.  Every year in the early days of May, Torque Fest roars and rocks into Iowa, so if you should ever find yourself on the ol’ Mississippi during that time of the year, stop by and find out what this celebration of the past can give to you.

So thank you, Mr. John Wells for another successful celebration.  The cars and the Bettys were a sight for sore eyes, with the weather and the soundtrack setting the atmosphere needed to celebrate the contraptions inspired by the past.

From the Open Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

To learn more about Torque Fest, visit Vintage Torque Fest.

 

 

 

A New Sign on an Old Trail

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

As I sat along the ol’ Lincoln Highway, Highway 50 nowadays in Nevada, I thought to myself what those pioneers of old must have thought when they encountered their very first automobile. What a sight it must have been when they saw those new machines as they traveled east to west along the newly discovered route of the Lincoln Highway, but was known to the local pioneers then as an old wagon trail.

While the industrial age prevailed on the Eastern seaboard of the States and things changed quickly, the rural Western states, such as Nevada, knew the old life and grew slowly until after the first World War. So I dedicate this drawing of an old sourdough and his donkey to the thoughts and ideals of the past and how it once was and never will be again.

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From the Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

Thunder Mountain

Greetings from the Open Road,

Hello again, it has been a while since we last had some correspondence. Today I bring you another illustration from the Lincoln Highway in Nevada.

Travelling what is known as Interstate 80 today in Nevada is a long and sightless journey.  So when you are lucky enough to run across an oddity, such as Thunder Mountain, it grabs your eye and your attention. I bring to you today a rough drawing, dedicated to a man’s beliefs and his talents.

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Frank Van Zant, an eccentric character from Oklahoma, followed many paths of employment in his lifetime.  From preacher to aspiring sheriff, Mr. Van Zant found his Waterloo when his truck broke down in the middle of Nevada.  He took one look around and fell in love with this barren, wild area.  He was reborn on that day as Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, which gave him a strong path to his self-declared heritage (in actuality, he was mostly Dutch).

 

Over the years, Mr. Van Zant constructed a roadside attraction which drew interest among travellers, and with his “heritage” and beliefs, he drew visitors far and wide who were in search of enlightenment and the Chief as a guru.  His fame lasted just over a decade, because times changed, so does public opinion.  Thunder Mountain fell into disrepair, with Mr. Van Zant falling into a deep depression.  Sadly, he was unable to recover from this state of mind and left his world of his own accord in 1989.

When travelling on Interstate 80, aka the Lincoln Highway, take a few minutes while you pass through Nevada and visit Mr. Van Zant’s, or Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, monument. Maybe there you will also come across some ghosts of the past or gain some enlightenment.

If you would like to learn more about Thunder Mountain, please visit Thunder Mountain Website.

From the Open Road (with a little sand in my eyes),

Lincoln Highway Johnny